This story was written by Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh.
Previous stories in the States To Watch In '08 series:
Legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes celebrated a game plan of "three yards and a cloud of dust" - moving the ball with straightforward and mistake-free, if incremental, steps.
Ohio in 2008 will be won in much the same fashion. There is no one dominant area or swing town that will carry the state for a campaign if it fumbles badly elsewhere. For, the challenge will be to consistently win over white, working class voters in county after county, particularly across the central and northeast parts of the state. , for his part, must build vote margins by again rallying turnout and the conservative voters from the suburbs who came out in force for George W. Bush in 2004.
THE SHAPE OF THE ELECTORATE: DEMOGRAPHICS
Unlike other battlegrounds such as Colorado or Virginia, with their booming exurbs and population growth, Ohio's population has seen minimal growth this decade.
In fact, the non-Hispanic white population in Ohio has actually declined, with modest growth in both the African-American and Hispanic communities. In an exceedingly tight election, that might be an important advantage for Barack Obama.
Right off the bat, Barack Obama will probably start with an advantage over the 2004 Democratic vote because of his support from the African American electorate.
George W. Bush fared extremely well (in relative terms) among African American voters in Ohio in 2004, winning 16% of their support as compared to 11% nationwide. Part of this was helped by the presence of a same-sex marriage ballot measure, which may have boosted turnout among culturally conservative voters; including some very religious African Americans.
That translates into votes this way: one in ten Ohio voters in 2004 was black, or about 560,000 voters. Mr. Bush's extra African-American support beyond the national average won him around 28,000 votes - or about half his margin over Kerry in Ohio.
This year, John McCain isn't likely to get similar support.
2008 African American enthusiasm for Obama could cause the black share of the electorate to increase to perhaps 12%, which would amount to around 732,000 votes if overall statewide turnout jumps to 6.1 million. If Obama captures 90% of that African American vote as one might expect, it would give the Democrat a statewide margin of 585,000 votes from black voters alone.
Still, that is probably not enough to win. Unlike some other states, Obama may not be able to rely on putting together an Ohio coalition that includes a lot of upper-income professionals - as he did in the primaries - because those voters just aren't as liberal in Ohio as they are in other, more Democratic states.
For example, in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, John Kerry carried high-income voters in 2004, but in Ohio, Mr. Bush won that income group handily. Nationwide, Kerry carried voters with post-graduate degrees by eleven points; in Ohio they went for him by the barest of margins.
All of which puts the spotlight even more squarely on the working-class white vote.
White men, in particular, may be pivotal. John Kerry made Ohio close in part because he did better with white men in Ohio (43%) than he did nationally (37%.) He ran about the same with white women. But in the Ohio primary against Hillary Clinton, Obama lost white men to Clinton by 19 points.
In 2004, Mr. Bush dominated the middle-class white vote, winning by 17% among voters earning $50,000-$75,000 per year. They represented 22% of the Ohio electorate, and gave Mr. Bush strong support in the ten fastest-growing counties.
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The Ohio primary also left McCain with some challenges to address. The Republican nomination was all but settled by March 4th, but McCain ceded one-third of the Ohio primary vote to Mike Huckabee and lost white evangelicals narrowly to him. McCain will need strong turnout from evangelicals and religious, conservative voters in Ohio (who were a quarter of the electorate in 2004) to win.
GEOGRAPHY: GAME PLANS FOR EACH CANDIDATE
Ohio starts off as a tale of offsetting cities: Cleveland in the north, where Democrats do well; and Cincinnati in the south, a Republican bastion. Each is worth watching not because they're "swing" areas, but because each candidate needs to max out their potential in each - or risk falling short statewide.
Obama's path begins in Cleveland (Cuyahoga County) where Kerry built a 227,000-vote margin in 2004, exceeding Gore's 2000 margin by 59,000 votes.
Obama will look to at least duplicate Kerry's performance, if not exceed it. To do that he'll need an increase in African American turnout in the city - which he might well get - but must also win solid support from upper-income, white voters there, too. That part of the equation will bear close watching.
West of Cleveland, he'll look to Lorain County, with its more working-class profile -- it has trended Democratic in the last three Presidential elections. Obama will try to win at least 55% of that county's vote, and McCain will try to keep that margin down.
In the center of the state sits Columbus, and to the northeast of it the smaller cities of Akron and Canton. If Obama isn't doing well with working-class whites, especially in these culturally conservative, Democratic-leaning counties, he'll be in trouble statewide no matter what he does in Cleveland.
- Stark County, which contains Canton - perhaps 200,000 voters turning out in a county that Kerry very narrowly won over Mr. Bush in 2004. About one in three here work in blue-collar jobs and its population skews a little older than the Cleveland suburbs - demographic trouble signs for Obama. To earn a repeat of Kerry's performance, Obama will need to win back most of the 50,000 voters who went for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
- Summit County (around 325,000 votes) which contains Akron, will tell a similar story. Obama may have a Democratic tailwind here: residents will be feeling the pressure of a down economy, and the county went 57% for Kerry in 2004. But Obama lost to Hillary Clinton here by ten points; there are 71,000 Democratic primary voters here who didn't select him as the nominee - more than enough to tilt the county toward McCain.
Similar blue-collar battles will play out in Lucas (Toledo), and to the east, Trumbull and Mahoning near Youngstown, where Obama may win close contests over McCain. The contest could come down to the margins here - if Obama can build up tens of thousands of tallies as a total edge out of these areas, he'll probably win the state. If McCain keeps these areas close or even, he'll have a very good chance of holding Ohio for the GOP.
Franklin County, which includes Columbus, went more solidly Democratic in 2004 (55%) than in 2000 (51%), and could be especially interesting. This year, it could be influenced by whether or not there is influx of young voters from Ohio State, which would boost Obama's chances and could help him exceed Kerry's percentage.
McCain's route to victory goes through the suburbs and through the steady accrual of vote margins in smaller rural counties.
In the north, while Obama is winning Cleveland, McCain will be taking the fight outside to suburbs like:
- Lake County, northeast of the city, which could be closely contested and a harbinger for other suburbs. In 2004, Mr. Bush won it by a mere 3,000 votes of the more than 120,000 cast. Lake County will be a key test of whether McCain can hold off Obama among upper-income professionals.
- Wayne and Richland Counties, with higher incomes and more white-collar professionals, Republicans typically win 60% of their vote. Mr. Bush did in 2004. That will be McCain's benchmark, too, and he'll call it a success if he can come away from them with a ten- to fifteen-thousand vote edge over Obama.
Then it is on to the central part of the state, where McCain will look to capitalize if Obama cannot meet the usual Democratic margins in the blue-collar areas.
In rural areas, McCain won't net a giant sum of votes from any single county, but all told rural communities cast around one-fifth of Ohio's votes in 2004 and Mr. Bush won them by a decisive 2-to-1 margin; McCain will probably do well in them, too.
Cincinnati and its environs are traditional Republican territory. Democrats could hold their own in the city itself - in fact, Mr. Bush's margin out of Hamilton County (which contains Cincinnati) was down by half in 2004 from what it was in 2000 -- but the President made up for it by gaining over his 2000 performance in the suburbs.
Those fast-growing suburbs around Cincinnati are a key part of McCain's game plan. Keep an eye on Butler (about a quarter-million voters) which is wealthier, white, and votes heavily Republican (can McCain approach 65% there as Mr. Bush did in 2004?) and also Clermont and Warren.
In winning Butler, Clermont and Warren by crushing margins, Mr. Bush took away a 130,000 vote margin. That erased more than half of the edge Kerry's turnout machine extracted from Cleveland - and lays out a clear goal for McCain.
Ohio has voted for the national presidential winner eleven consecutive times. The last time it backed a losing candidate was 1960, when it went for Richard Nixon.
This is not happenstance. Ohio often reflects national trends, so it is no surprise that in 2008 it shapes up as a singular test of each campaign's biggest challenge.
Put simply: Obama must win back many of the working-class white voters who rebuked him in the primaries, if he is to win statewide. For McCain, the question is whether he can generate the strong suburban support that rallied in 2004 to put George W. Bush over the top, and do it consistently in all areas of the state -- in the suburbs of Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus and Canton and elsewhere.
When the dust clears, whoever meets their challenge most consistently will win.
Anthony Salvanto is CBS News Manager of Surveys. Mark Gersh is Washington Director, National Committee for an Effective Congress, and a CBS News Consultant
By Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh